How Labour defied the doubters in the Batley and Spen byelection

Kim Leadbeater’s local roots, determination and plain speaking helped her pluck the narrowest of victories from expected defeat

Whenever Kim Leadbeater was asked if she would follow in her sister’s footsteps and enter politics, she would always say no – for two reasons: “One was because I swear too much. The second was because I’m not very good at toeing the party line.” Will she be less inclined to speak freely now she is a Labour MP? “Will I ’eck!” she scoffed.

It is Leadbeater’s brand of buzzy familiarity and Yorkshire plain speaking that rescued Labour from a third devastating byelection defeat in as many months, perhaps saving Keir Starmer’s leadership with it.

Her narrow victory came after a campaign described as one of the most divisive in recent memory. Eggs, kicks, punches and insults were thrown. And in the middle of this ugly cacophony stood a newcomer to politics whose sister was murdered in this constituency just five years ago.

“It just feels like a cloud’s been lifted from the whole of the Spen valley,” said Andrea Stow, 74, sipping an americano at Eve’s cafe in Cleckheaton memorial park, where a jubilant Leadbeater greeted supporters alongside Keir Starmer on Friday morning.

Leadbeater’s lack of political experience attracted some grumbles – she was a personal trainer before announcing she would stand for election in May – but it may also have propelled her to victory in an age where many distrust “professional politicians”.

Batley and Spen
George Galloway made no secret of wanting a change in the Labour leadership while campaigning in Batley and Spen. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

An energetic extrovert who greets strangers with a cheery “Hello, love!”, the 45-year-old practically bounced between doors on the campaign trail. Labour hammered home the message that she was the only one of the 16 candidates able to vote in the byelection – she has lived in the constituency all her life – and her empty political CV meant she avoided blame for council issues such as potholes, speeding and neglect of local play areas.

George Galloway, standing on an “anti-woke”, pro-Palestine agenda, sought to give Starmer a bloody nose by focusing the campaign on culture war issues and dividing the Asian population, who make up one in five voters and historically vote Labour, critics say. He won more than 8,000 votes, but it was always going to be a two-horse race between Labour and the Conservatives.

One Labour campaign source said they “took the Tories on in their areas” aided by hundreds of grassroots activists and dozens of prominent MPs, and won votes in normally Conservative areas. They were surprised by a low-key Tory campaign, whose candidate, Ryan Stephenson, was dubbed “the invisible man”.

The Tory campaign focused on increased investment – a promise reinforced by the prime minister on two visits to the seat. Both times, at visits open only to a handful of local journalists, Johnson made reference to the government’s towns fund “or other funds” and reminded voters that “just 1,763 people” needed to switch allegiances to secure change, a reference to Labour’s slim majority of just over 3,500.

For Mohsin Pandor and Huma Cassamoali, the election “divided the community”, with fierce exchanges on community Whatsapp groups, including a letter written anonymously from Muslim women decrying “shameful” behaviour from “a loud minority” of men.

The streets surrounding their home in Batley, which they say are normally ignored during campaigns, have been alive with Galloway’s double-decker bus and three campaign vehicles fitted with megaphones, as well as an increased police presence during Leadbeater’s visits.

Pandor, who switched from Labour to Galloway as “a protest vote” in Thursday’s election, remembers attending the huge protests against the Iraq war in his late teens as a key politicising moment, including marching under a giant Palestinian flag and hearing Galloway speak. However, the couple’s main concerns were about the neglected local park, which has a broken fence and is littered with glass and discarded drug paraphernalia.

“I really hope that Labour hears the concerns and addresses them,” he said. “I believe people, myself included, will always remain hopeful of a Labour party that represents minorities. Deep down, many wanted a Labour victory overall, but they also wanted to get noticed.”

It is thought that much of Galloway’s support – 21.8% of the vote share – came from the larger towns of Batley and Heckmondwike, which have a mixed demographic and have traditionally been Labour strongholds within the seat. There was anger among some that Leadbeater had been selected for Labour instead of Muslim councillors – a feeling that contributed to support for Galloway – as well as anger at Labour over local and foreign policy issues and concerns that little was being done to tackle rising Islamophobia.

Labour’s 323-vote lead makes Batley and Spen the 10th most marginal seat in the UK. Leadbeater took just one day off during the campaign – the anniversary of her elder sister’s murder. The Conservatives also suspended campaigning, although Galloway’s team kept up the offensive, saying, “Democracy must go on.”

Kevin Nicholas with bouquet
Kevin Nicholas with the bouquet he bought for Kim Leadbeater. Photograph: Handout

Such a move was indicative of the nastiness that many felt emanated from his supporters. The accusations of aggression continued up to polling day, where Labour reported half a dozen incidents of intimidatory behaviour at polling stations to the returning officer. One senior Labour figure said the campaign reminded him of “Northern Ireland in the mid-90s” and that he had feared more violence in the run-up to polling day.

When Labour activists were kicked, punched and pelted with eggs days before polling day, Leadbeater visited her parents – Jean, a former school secretary, and Gordon, who worked in a toothpaste and hairspray factory – to reassure them.

Sipping a coffee in Cleckheaton’s memorial park on Friday, Kevin Nicholas, 62, had brought a bouquet of roses – Labour red and Yorkshire white – for the new MP. Nicholas, the chairman of Batley Bulldogs rugby league club, said he was proud that she had run a clean campaign in the face of “nastiness” from her rivals and that people would now see she will be a “terrific MP”.

“I knew it would be tight because of George Galloway splitting the Asian vote, but I’m certain that this won’t be a marginal seat for long. Everybody will see how good a person she is,” he said at Eve’s cafe on Friday.

Stow, a retired social worker, added that she had not expected Labour to win and was ecstatic that the party had clung on. The election had felt like an “awful weight” over her for weeks, she said, accusing Galloway of sowing division: “He wants to get back in the hole and never get out again.”

Stow added: “Everybody has got down on Labour and everything seems to have been going wrong. Maybe this is the turning point. I just want Labour to come back strong.”

As the placards were taken down and the camera crews disappeared, the concern for many now turns to a constituency where once again tensions are high.

Rev Mark Umpleby, a priest in Batley who has worked with Leadbeater and the Jo Cox Foundation on community cohesion activities, called for a period of healing to bring the area back together after a vitriolic few weeks.

In general, people in this corner of West Yorkshire live well together, he said. Although the election had not undone this work, people had felt unsafe even voicing opinions about politics.

It was, he said, a “bump in the road that’s been really, really difficult”. “There’s some healing to do within our communities after the last few weeks, but at the moment we just need to pause and draw breath and remember those things that have been taking place in the last five years,” he added.

Contributors

Maya Wolfe-Robinson and Josh Halliday

The GuardianTramp

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